Paradise just a drive away

 

The Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort satisfies all the senses

By Sharon Raye

Arriving on Fort Lauderdale Beach and turning onto Fort Lauderdale Boulevard (AKA The Strip) one must have the windows down to fully take it all in: The palm trees lined up and swaying in the ocean breeze, the smell of the fresh sea air, the warm summer sun shining on your skin – in those moments paradise is found.

Inspired by the long carefree summer days, I hit the road for a bit of adventure. Destination, The Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort, located only steps away from the Atlantic Ocean.

As I entered my room with the white fluffy bed, the coastal contemporary decor and, of course, the spectacular ocean view, I knew I’d feel right at home. I got settled in and headed over to grab lunch at Casa Sensei, which is a Pan-Asian Latin fusion and sushi bar with waterfront dining in the heart of Las Olas.

Unique Nelson was my server, yes, his name is Unique. Unique suggested charred octopus for an appetizer and it came beautifully grilled, accompanied with a papaya mango salad and fresh basil vinaigrette. For my main entree I went with their menu specialty, the Mongolian duck. The duck was perfectly crisp on the outside, tender inside and flavorful with the right amount of sauce as not to take away from the crispy outside, served over rice. 

I don’t usually have dessert with lunch, but did so at the suggestion of manager Christopher Emerson, who walked by my table and said, “Try the coconut cake, it has no fat, no calories.” The coconut cream bombe has a moist and fluffy coconut cake, coconut cream filling in the middle, buttercream icing and is topped with coconut shavings. Let’s say I left full and satisfied.

After lunch it was time to get active. I ventured over to Segway Fort Lauderdale to take their 4 Mile Yacht & Mansion Tour. It was a group tour and our instructor Solomon (“with all O’s,” as he described himself) asked the group who had ridden a Segway before. I was the only one who didn’t raise a hand. I will say in that moment I felt intimidated, but I was making an effort to get out of my comfort zone. When Fort Lauderdale Segway says “we will make you a pro within minutes” they aren’t kidding. I was riding in confidence within five minutes of instruction. This tour takes you through Riverwalk, downtown Fort Lauderdale and the Rio Vista neighborhood. One fun fact we learned was Rio Vista is the oldest neighborhood in the city and you cannot cut down a single tree. If you take a tour you will get to see some creative ways people built around these magical trees. It is a great way to see the city, learn some history and connect with nature.

I could have spent the whole day exploring the city by Segway but it was time to discover another restaurant, Lona Cocina Tequileria, described as a soulful eclectic style Mexican food. Lona is situated right across the street from the beach, providing unobstructed views of the ocean from its patio and bar seating. There were so many appetizing dishes on the menu it was hard to choose only one. I started with their homemade guacamole, which has three different styles to choose from: traditional, lump crab and crispy bacon. I ended up ordering two more appetizers: tuna tostadas, which were fresh and light, and the octopus tostadas, which were hardy with a spicy kick. Both exuded very different flavor profiles, but were equally tasty. I was certainly getting full but I couldn’t pass up their lobster quesadilla, and I’m happy I didn’t. It consisted of butter poached Maine lobster, chipotle aïoli, red onion and cilantro.

 

Manager Wayne Whitmore informed me the chef really put thought into where they source their food. The avocados are from Mexico, the octopus from Spain, and the lobster from Maine. Such attention to detail adds an extra elevation to the food that you can taste.

Chef Jorge Gutierrez saved his best for last – an authentic Mexican taco called Taco Chignon, which translates to “more than the best” and is only on the menu once a week, Thursdays after 6 p.m. as the pork belly is aged in brine for three days then smoked for 16 hours. At this point, I was not sure what I should do – I’m half Jewish and I do not eat pork. Chef Gutierrez was so gracious to share his special taco with me when he placed it in front of me, all its ingredients were piled high onto its homemade flour tortilla so I was not sure how to proceed. I was stalling for time and asked the chef how I should eat it and with pride he said “Mexican style is to eat your taco with the pinky up to balance it.” So, I rolled it up, had a good laugh, took a bite with one pinky up and all. Chef Gutierrez puts his heart and soul into his food, and the Taco Chignon must be good as it’s on the top 10 things to try when you come to Fort Lauderdale.

It was tempting to spend the entire trip solely dining out, but my search for culture and the arts were pulling me. Lauderdale’s newest mural installation, Everyone Under the Sun by internationally known airbrush artist Avi Ram was right next door, so I walked over to check it out. It was a vibrant illustration showcasing the beauty of Mother Nature. As I walked back along the beach one can’t help but notice another stunning mural on the Skywalk bridge that connects The Westin to the beach. It’s a colorful eye-catching piece of Hibiscus flowers and Beta fish called Aqua Vida by artist Ruben Ubiera.

Next stop on my itinerary was NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale to see The World of Anna Sui, one of New York’s most esteemed designers. This exhibit did not disappoint as they presented over 100 of her looks, which showcases her rock star queen diva essence. Anna Sui’s fashion is whimsical and inspiring. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at NSU, which has an eclectic mix and wide range of art on display.

After such an inspiring visual stimulation it was time to awaken my taste buds. Boatyard has a nautical chic ambience and a seafood-centric locally sourced menu. Situated in its prime location right on the intracoastal one could arrive by boat as they have three boat slips available first come, first serve. Cindy Chavanio, general manager of the Boatyard, sat me down at a pleasing waterside table and suggested the tuna tacos as an appetizer. I have to mention one of their handcrafted cocktails the Minty Melon, it’s a martini with grapefruit vodka, jalapeño, watermelon and mint. The best part was a large square watermelon ice cube inside that kept it icy cold until the last drop – it was fantastic! I ended my meal with the key lime baked Alaska—it has key lime custard, graham cracker cake, torched meringue and seasonal berries.

En route back to the hotel I was pleasantly surprised at how close everything was. I know living in Ocala one gets spoiled because you can drive from point A to point B and arrive in under 10 minutes. Coming to a big city one would assume a lot of your time would be consumed driving, but it was refreshing as every place I visited was no more than a 15-minute drive.

I arrived back to the hotel and had some time before my dinner reservation, so I took a walk through the pool. It overlooks the ocean and is only a short walk through the Skywalk bridge if you want to go to the beach where chairs and towels are provided for hotel guests.

My quest to sample as many nearby restaurants continued. Coopers Hawk Winery & Restaurant was on my list. They have a contemporary American menu with flavors from around the world with each dish made to order in their scratch kitchen. They also have their own vineyard and handcraft their own wine, along with a Napa-Style tasting room.

Cooperhawk‘s dedication to winemaking and the experience they provide for their guests is top notch. Tali, my server, said “some people come here and say, I don’t really like wine.” To that she says “you’re going to find something you like, trust me.” She suggested starting with one of their wine flights so I let her choose. She brought me five selections of wine: Almond Sparkling, Coopers White, Cux Pinot, and Vin de Deux. Trying the wine flights was a palate-awakening experience. For my appetizer I ordered the crispy brussel sprouts, a dish with many flavors paired together: cashews, mint, sweet Thai chili, sesame-sriracha aioli, to combine sweet, savory, and salty. For my main entrée I ordered the pan-roasted Barramundi, an Australian sea bass. Tali said, “It made her ears tingle, the flavor just keeps coming” so I had to try it. The Barramundi is a mild flaky fish with the outside boasting a perfect pan roasted finish. Although my ears didn’t tingle, I was doing the happy seat dance with each bite. 

The night was still young and I was on my way to Nine01 Speakeasy located inside Fort Lauderdale’s Hyatt Centric Las Olas. Today, speakeasies are a place to go to on the down low, with a set of rules on how to get in, such as a secret code with its location hidden or not obvious. As I entered the hotel my anticipation was building. I gave the front desk my password and then was given a room key and instructed to go to the ninth floor. As I opened the door and walked inside, this converted hotel room transported me to a days-of-yore speakeasy with red velvet tapestry, antique furniture and dim lights to create a sensuous atmosphere. Located in the middle of the room is a small bar brimming with herbs and special concoctions. I tried one of their cocktails called The Butler Made Me Do It. Besides their creative cocktails, they also have a sophisticated appetizer menu and a chef’s selection of desserts. Guest mixologists arrive from around the country every other week, bringing their own drinks from their menus as Kayla Czarnomsky, the resident bartender on duty mentioned to me. Entry to room 901 is by reservation only with a $50 minimum per person.

I woke up Sunday morning, opened the windows one last time to hear the waves coming in as my beach getaway was nearing an end. I packed up and said farewell to my home away from home for the last few days. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at The Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort but I wasn’t ready to leave the city just yet.

I was curious to find out about Fort Lauderdale’s earlier years, so I took a tour at History Fort Lauderdale, located on the New River. Ellery Andrews, the deputy director of History Fort Lauderdale, took the time to give me a tour of the property, which houses four buildings:

The Museum of History in the 1905 New River Inn, which is Broward County’s oldest hotel.

The Pioneer House Museum built by Ed King, who was a pioneer farmer and builder.

The 1899 Schoolhouse Museum, which is a replica school house that gives you a peek back in time with period wood desks and McGuffey readers. You could imagine Miss Ivy Cromartie, Broward’s first teacher, teaching her nine students in a structure just like the one at History Fort Lauderdale.

The Hoch Research Library, the leading history center in South Florida for research and study. The center houses newspaper clippings from 1910 until present day, 400,000 historic photos, maps and architectural blueprints.

My last stop was Sistrunk Marketplace to have lunch. Sistrunk is a food hall, brewery and distillery all in one location. When I arrived, I was on the lookout for Maxence Doytier, Sistrunk’s event guru. He gave me an informative walk-through and I’ll say there’s not much they don’t do or have to offer. They have a butcher shop on site, a DJ school, live art installations, cooking classes, distillery tours, live music and, if you fancy some shopping, you can do that too, at Sistrunkollevtive boutique. 

Sistrunk has a cool, hip industrial vibe and brings people together in a special way, not only to eat amazing food from their 12 different international food stalls but by inspiring people to express themselves and facilitating art. 

There’s a positive energy at Sistrunk and it starts with how things are organized. As Maxence describes, “There’s a sense of synergy here.” All their food stalls are unique, which cuts out any sense of competition between them. Each one brings their own specialness, and they are all happy to let each other shine. 

I went on a culinary journey starting at PokeOG with the salmon and tuna poke bowl over seaweed salad, so fresh it melts in your mouth. Next up was Hot Lime’s ceviche rice bowl with Corvina ceviche, avocado, sweet potato, onions, cilantro, choclo, and canchita corn – this dish is bursting with flavor. After that I tried two types of empanadas from The Empanada Bodega: one filled with spinach and the other a desert with guava and cheese, both light and flaky. Lastly, I indulged in a fried chicken and biscuit sandwich drizzled with honey from Nellies Southern Table. This sandwich was crispy, juicy, salty and sweet – my favorite flavor profiles. The portions are generous so bring your appetite or take some home to savor for later.

My getaway was officially over as all good things must come to an end and it was time to get on the road. I set out to try as many eateries as I could fit in and immerse myself into some art and culture. What I did not expect was to become enamored with the city – must be something in that salty sea air.

During the months of August thru September LauderDeals offers special deals on summer hotels and attractions and Dine Out Fort Lauderdale offers great discounts on spa and dining experiences throughout the city. If you’re thinking about visiting, it’s a fantastic time to check out the area.  

For more information:  visitlauderdale.com

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